The Biggest Question

A big question requires a knowledgeable reply, but “The Biggest Question” necessitates the explanation of three men by hour-long video.

The DVD was sent to me by a friendly young minister in Texas who must have read my op-ed when it was reprinted in the Dallas Morning News. His return address revealed him to be Baptist, but the video itself makes no denominational claims. I imagine its producers reside somewhere on the current Christian frontier where such distinctions are downplayed. The accompanying card explained that the minister hoped the DVD would answer my questions from the “evangelical/protestant point of view.” I thought that wording was nice: he wasn’t saying it was right, just another perspective.

The video’s main narrator is a guy named Todd Friel who is apparently a popular evangelical figure. He hosts a daily two-hour Christian-themed radio show called “Wretched” that streams from Wretchedradio.com. The website offers videos and podcasts, all brought to you by Burning Bush Communications. You can sign up to join the Wretched club and receive your Wretched news. You may also buy a T-shirt and baseball cap and save by purchasing them as a “Wretched wear combo.”

Friel is a tall, skinny guy with the vocal stylings and over-the-top enthusiasm of a morning rush-hour DJ. He may be a few years older than the evangelicals I’ve seen in person, like Jackson and the Christian boy band members, but not by much. The backdrop “set” for the DVD (and the other videos that stream on the site) looks like an industrial warehouse loft filled with old-timey furnishings. I imagine it’s someone’s idea of where Shakespeare might live if he rose from the dead and took up residence in a former factory.

Friel wanders around the loft talking into the camera. Intermittently, the video cuts to two other men who help him explain stuff. The first is Kirk Cameron, a former teen heartthrob (he was on a popular TV sitcom called “Growing Pains” in the 1980’s) turned evangelical actor/spokesperson. He does his explaining from a leafy yard setting. The second is a young minister who goes by the name of R.W. Glenn. He speaks earnestly into the camera while walking the streets of an idyllic-looking suburban “downtown” devoid of pedestrians. In the alternate reality of the DVD, women seem to have no presence. If they exist, it is only as implied by the wedding bands on the men’s fingers. As such, their most lively moments come when the men use their hands to make a particularly important point.

Does what they have to say answer the biggest question, as its title suggests?

Most of the DVD is dedicated to explaining what they call the “Doctrine of Imputation.” Embrace this doctrine, they explain, and experience freedom. Never again must we feel lacking in goodness.

The detailed thesis, to which each man contributes, is this:

We are criminals and an enemy of God with nothing to offer but our filthiness. Ours is an infinite debt of sin. We can do nothing God requires. We are bound for the eternal torment of hell. Put in academic terms, we all have failing grades.

Luckily, Jesus lived the perfect life and then died the death we deserve. Because God loves people who recognize their deep badness, He—in His mercy—is willing to substitute Jesus’ grade (A+) for our own.

This swap is something Friel calls “Jesus as our propitiation” and serves as the heart of the Doctrine of Imputation, which can also be called the “Imputation of Jesus Righteousness.” It occurs as the result of an actual transaction, the specifics of which are also spelled out…

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God’s hands

After Jesus died, beliefs about what sort of being Jesus was were all over the map, even among the most devout. They said he was divine, but a little less so than God. Others insisted he was the human incarnation of God, equal to God because he was God. Some preferred to think of him as an exceptional man who understood and embodied the wisdom of God; if he was divine, it was only in the way that each of us has the potential to be because we are all expressions of the divine. When I read about this spectrum of opinion, I was surprised because I had imagined everyone was on the same page at the beginning and it was only more recently that thoughts splintered and diverged.

As early Christendom spread, this lack of consistency grew troublesome. Preachers were going out into the countryside teaching their own interpretations and some people were worshipping Jesus as a separate being from God, threatening the basic monotheism of Christianity.

Summoned by Emperor Constantine 325 years after Jesus’ death, the first official ecumenical council of Christendom convened in a city called Nicaea. The goal was to create a single “profession of faith” so that when the participants returned to their corners of the kingdom, they could explain Christianity using words identical to those used everywhere else. It was quality control. Christianity went corporate and the product needed consistency. The bishops voted on the wording, but even then it wasn’t unanimous.

The Nicene Creed of 325 stated that Jesus and God are one in the same; the revised Creed, created in the year 381, wrapped in the Holy Spirit as well. Today, some congregations regularly recite the creed in unison. I’ve said it myself on several occasions since I began my church-going adventures. It reads in part:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth…

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father…

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified…

The “Trinity” continues to be a topic of debate among modern Christians and some denominations opt not to use it—at least not explicitly.

Whether one embraces the concept or not, it seems to indicate an undeniable truth. In developing an understanding of God, some people might envision an entity that is more concrete, perhaps inhabiting a body, while others prefer something that’s bigger and more amorphous.

From the Trinity, I see that people have been treading these same paths to God for centuries: one, a human incarnation of the divine, and the other, nothing but spirit. It seems to me they’re all heading in the same direction.

Perhaps some people need a mixture of form and formlessness, or will use one or the other at different times in their lives. I’ve thought of God as an endless plane of vibrating energy of which we are all a part, but I’ve also pictured God with arms and legs and hands I can hold. Because sometimes I just want a hand to hold, even if just in my imagination.

Even within a congregation that emphasizes one version over the other, individuals will work it out for themselves because it’s such a personal thing. There are bound to be evangelicals who ride the Holy Spirit to God, just as I’m sure there are Pentecostals who can’t get there without Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, a few Unitarians—a denomination that does not officially use the Trinity–hold that bundle close to their hearts.

The big Lookie Loo

Sitting there, I recall what I understood about Jesus/God back when I was a kid before I stopped overtly considering such topics. Without benefit of Bible study or Sunday school classes, I was left to piece together a portrait from the random particulates that floated into my field of vision. The first I heard of this so-called God guy, I was maybe four years old. I was at daycare and one of the adults said, “God is always watching.” It was said in passing, not even directed at me, but I latched on to the idea of being constantly spied upon. I was extremely curious about the logistics. I remember being alone in my bedroom later and thinking that God must be watching even now, although it seemed I was by myself. I decided He must be spying through the open window despite the enormous hedge blocking the view. I went to the window and studied the little spots of yard I could see beyond the leaves. God was out there, I just knew it, the big Lookie Loo.

I was not overly concerned until sometime later when the idea of “hell” entered my consciousness. How did it get there? I can imagine that the window to this notion was opened on the playground. Some kid taunted another with “you’re going to hell,” because that seemed to be the most awful thing you could say to a person at that age. I think kids hurl the worst at one another to see what riles, to gauge reactions, a sort of passive “survey of opinions.” I’m sure I pressed a friend for details. What was it? The answer: a fiery place under the ground where bad people were sent to suffer forever. It sounded horrible, but it wasn’t until my parents separated and my mom and I moved from Austin to Dallas that this notion became associated with God, specifically as a punishment that could be directed at me personally. On two occasions, I accompanied my grandparents to Sunday services at Chapel in the Woods, just a simple one-room church they belonged to with a few rows of chairs and an upright piano. I don’t know if it was from the details I picked up during the sermons or if my grandparents started to fill in the blanks for me, but it was while we were living with them that I became preoccupied with being judged by God. I had always had a twinge of guilt buried deep, a vague feeling of not being all good, and here was the proof, the specifics of why and how justice would be rendered. In my mind, my mother and I didn’t fit the mold of a God-approved family—no dad, no house, no church attendance. With our deviance, we were all but begging for one-way tickets to hell where we would be strung up side-by-side and licked by unforgiving flames for the rest of eternity—like two shish kabobs on an endless barbeque. I pictured the flesh on our faces boiling and melting off, our screams of agony as our limbs caught fire. Some nights I shook and cried at the thought of it. This underlying sense of doom stayed with me to varying degrees for the years I lived in Dallas so that by the time I turned 13 and moved permanently to Los Angeles, it was pure relief to let the ocean breeze blow those images away. Finally, I could laugh at how silly I was for once thinking of God as some big man who alternated between peeping at me and reclining on the puffiest cloud. How wonderful to know that beneath my feet was nothing but dirt and, much further down, magma.

If God got tangled in the complicated feelings of my self-worth, Jesus carried none of this weight. Jesus was God’s son and he was nice. My cousins taught me the words to “Jesus Loves All the Children” one afternoon and for hours we marched up and down the driveway of my great-grandmother’s house in Cockrell, Texas belting it out. Behind the preacher at my grandparents’ church hung a small framed illustration of Jesus. He had rosy cheeks, a gentle smile, and the same long, wavy locks grandma and grandpa hated on my dad. I didn’t understand why they approved of the look on Jesus, but thought my dad needed a haircut.

God filled me with anxiety about my essential deficiencies, but Jesus made me feel okay, good even. This changed the older I got and the more examples I saw of individuals publicly promoting Jesus: television evangelist, shouters on the news, with the too-much-makeup and mascara running down and enormous shellacked hairdos and the constant requests for money and the insisting we were doing wrong and the speaking in platitudes that seemed not only superficial but also to contradict their actions. They did not strike me as authentic humans, or even humans acting authentically. I might see one of their minions in person, standing in a crowded public walk way, yelling to passersby, spittle forming at their lips. I would give them a wide berth. That kind of fervency about anything was an illness I did not want to catch. That’s when Jesus joined God on the back shelf of my mind, filed under the heading, “stuff that makes me feel icky.” Yet, in interest of full disclosure, I must admit there have been times in my adult life when I have loudly cried out for Jesus. This has usually occurred following a night of too much alcohol, when I find myself curled up on the bathroom floor or hugging the toilet for dear life. I have misjudged my tolerance for mixed drinks and now I am violently sick and it’s my own damn fault and I just really, really, really do not want to die although death is surely imminent and, much to my surprise and that of anyone who may be within earshot, I shout, “Oh, Jesus!” or “Jesus, help me!” Which seems to indicate that some barely conscious, maybe even primal, part of me still trusts in this notion of Jesus, wants him near me, and automatically reaches for him at times of great need.